Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt reviews Justin Welby’s Lent book Dethroning Mammon: Mammon is money or possessions when they are enthroned. The author says there is nothing wrong with money in itself, but when it exercises supreme power (is enthroned) it becomes mammon: evil, destructive and dangerous. A Foreword commending the book is from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement which now has nearly 150 communities worldwide.
The author is, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury. This book has been written specially for Lent, that seven week period of preparation for Holy Week, and the death and Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The six chapter headings give the flavour:
- what we see we value
- what we measure controls us
- what we have we hold
- what we receive we treat as ours
- what we give we gain
- what we master brings us joy
An introduction uses Jesus’ parable of a merchant finding an immensely precious pearl – to be gained even at the cost of surrendering everything else. Welby suggests that preparation for the Passion of Jesus might involve, not so much re-thinking chocolate and alcohol but, re-thinking materialism, mammon on its throne, what is good and bad in the economy.
Each further chapter is similarly based on a Bible story or passage. Chapter 1 (using the death of Lazarus) offers a more insightful kind of seeing. Money as an idol has a pseudo-divine authority in our lives, distorting our seeing.
Chapter 2 (Zaccheus the taxman) shows we like to measure – salary, budget, profit, even time. So unpaid caring of children, elderly and the disabled is less valued, as is the word of God. But mammon lies, deceives us, and controls.
Envy or generosity?
Ch 3 (Mary anointing Jesus) contrasts the economic systems of Judas and Mary, between fearful envy and ‘absurd’ generosity. Ch 4 (Jesus washing the disciples’ feet) explores the close relationship of money and power. Jesus’ challenge is not just for personal humility, but for a community of service.
Ch 5 (the burial of Jesus) is an intriguing and thoughtful critique of ‘financial man’ and ‘economic man’ in the light of the extraordinary behaviour of the rich Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There are comments on international generosity, e.g. the Marshall Plan and DFID (the Department for International Development).
Ch 6 (the message to the church in Laodicea, and the fall of Babylon in Revelation) returns to the deceitfulness of mammon. Ways to dethrone mammon involve listening properly to God, repenting, and intentionally enthroning Christ in our lives – examples are given.
Exciting and fresh
I couldn’t read the book quickly because it is demanding in both information and challenge; but I didn’t want to put it down because it is winsome, exciting and fresh. Welby fairly says he is neither a professional economist or theologian – but he has substantial senior experience in oil finance, and a thoughtful rigorous approach to scripture. He was a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards following the 2008 financial turmoil, and has led a practical and successful assault on the pay-day loans business.
I cannot recommend this relatively small book too highly. If you read it carefully you will be in the company of the Governor of the Bank of England.
Few subjects are more important and relevant; few books could have a greater impact for good, for grace and justice. Might you put it ahead of chocolate and alcohol?
Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt lives in Buckinghamshire and is a former vicar, Archdeacon and Director of Ministry for the Church of England. This review was first published on the Resistance and Renewal blog.
There have been a few other reviews of the book. It is quite unusual to see a review on the BBC website, though perhaps understandable given the author. The one in Christianity Magazine was rather negative, but Nick Spencer’s review at Theos perhaps explains why:
Throughout, the Archbishop engages in detailed scriptural work – texts are central to his chapters, never afterthoughts – as well as personal anecdotes, while occasionally venturing onto more overtly economic and political grounds. If the book doesn’t quite cohere, it is because this is an awful lot to cover in a very short space, the author continually tugged in different directions: the personal spiritual re-formation of a conventional Lent book on one side, the vast, impersonal economic forces that make money such an intractable issue on the other. Ultimately, the book’s heart is in Lent and in our personal tussles between Mammon and Jesus, but this reader at least always wanted to hear more about the impersonal and structural issues that vex us to today. Maybe that’s for the next book.
But he concludes with a positive observation:
Such criticism notwithstanding, Dethroning Mammon is an admirable contribution to the re-narration of Christianity in the UK, less concerned, in spite of what critics claim, with what people do in the bedroom than it is with how they behave in the boardroom.
Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times, gives plenty of detail but without any evaluative comment.
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